The Creative Section (Vol. 5, No. 1) is on its way and will be published by the end of May, 2024.

A HOSPITAL CALLER

 


A HOSPITAL CALLER

 

-         Manu Bhattathiri (India)

 

It was a very large hospital and with hundreds of people buzzing around the lobby at all times the only rule seemed to be that none must collide into another.

At the front desk the phone buzzed. For a moment it looked like no one would answer it in that perpetual confusion. But after five rings a woman attendant answered, ‘Grace Multispecialty Hospital. How may I help you?’

The caller was a man, perhaps middle-aged, speaking in a calm voice: ‘Hello. I was in the emergency department about a couple of hours ago with skin rashes. I’m alright now, but I am calling about another patient who was—’

‘Sir may I put your call on hold while I transfer it to the emergency department?’

Music played and it sounded particularly sad to the Caller. Thankfully someone at the emergency department answered soon enough.

‘Grace Multidisciplinary Hospital, Emergency Department.’ Another female voice, rather like the first. ‘May I know your emergency.’

Caller: No, no. I was there a couple of hours ago with skin rashes. One Dr Vivek treated me. I am fine now. I am calling to know about another patient who was wheeled in while I was there. An accident case. I need to know if he is alright.

Attendant: Name of the patient sir?

Caller: My name is—

Attendant: Name of the patient whose details you need.

Caller: I don’t know, I wouldn’t know. He was just wheeled in, totally unconscious. And they put a tube into his chest through his mouth to help him breathe—

Attendant: Excuse me sir, how are you related to the accident patient?

Caller: I’m not related. Like I said, I don’t know the man. He was brought in, not a drop of blood on him, but his jeans were pulled down below his knees…they were probably checking for injuries.

Attendant: I’m sorry sir. I am not allowed to give out patient information to strangers.

Caller: But I just need to know if he is dead or alive.

Attendant: Sorry sir, that’s patient information, and you are a stranger. You don’t even know his name—

Caller: Madam, if I had just met the man in your hospital cafeteria and exchanged names over a coffee, that problem would be over. I just need to know if he is dead or alive.

Attendant: Sir, why do you need to know sir?

She seemed to be getting a little impatient and the Caller wondered if it was hospital procedure to bang the phone down just like that.

Caller: Madam, I was there, suffering with skin rashes and itch all over. It wasn’t quite gone even with two steroid shots. But all of a sudden they wheeled in this man, must be young…and they had found him on the road unconscious, and pulled down his pants to check—

Attendant: Sir, we cannot give out patient information when you don’t even know the patient’s name, and are not related in any manner.

Caller: Like I said, I was itching all over. And the moment they brought in this man, his stomach was going up and down erratically as they helped him breathe, and my itchiness just vanished, can you believe it? Poof, it was gone.

Attendant: Sir this is the emergency department, and I cannot entertain one caller with small stuff to talk.

Caller: Small stuff? I just need to know if that man is dead or alive. And if possible, tell me if he’ll make it.

Attendant: Sir, I’m handing over the phone to my superior.

The Caller braced himself for more music but the call wasn’t put on hold. A man attendant—superior—came on the line.

Attendant: Good morning sir, I am the manager of the adult emergency department of Grace Multispecialty Hospital. I understand you have a concern regarding a patient you are not related to in any manner?

Caller: Not related, except that we shared the same emergency department a couple of hours ago. I just need to know if he is dead or alive.

Attendant: Why sir?

Caller: Why sir?

Attendant: I mean why do you need to know? You don’t even know his name.

Caller: Names come after you are born, gentleman. The state of being alive precedes the state of having a name. Is he dead or is he alive. We can exchange names later.

Attendant: Sir, it is against hospital rules to divulge patient details to a stranger. I can understand, you are just compassionate and that is a good thing. But you please understand sir, I have my limitations also.

Caller: Rules? I did not see too many rules ruling that confusion in your hospital.

Attendant: Sir please. If there is nothing else, I have a million things to attend—

Caller: What is your name?

Attendant: I am Murthy sir. If you wish you can complain—

Caller: No no. I am Srinivasan. You will find my name in your records. Srinivasan Pillai. I was there at four thirty this morning for allergy.

Murthy: Ok sir.

Srinivasan: There, now that we know each other. Is that man alive, Murthy?

Murthy (with a mild laugh): Sir, you are so adamant. We know each other’s names now, but the patient you enquire about is still not related to you sir. And the hospital rules do not permit me to divulge patient information to strangers.

Srinivasan: You told me that before. All I need to know is if he is dead or alive. You see, Mr Murthy, I came in this morning very troubled, scratching all over and even breaking my skin in places. I was irritated and angry and suffering. But then all that vanished—you understand—when they brought in this man, his leg in a very awkward position but with him…so unconscious…that he couldn’t move it to a more comfortable position. Lying there in is underwear, they had pulled down his pants—

Murthy: Srinivasan sir, I understand. But this is the emergency department of such a major hospital. We get such cases all the time. The day before you were admitted, a middle-aged woman was brought in with her intestines popping out. I don’t want to be insensitive. But we work with certain rules or we won’t function as required.

Srinivasan: I know, I am just asking you to wink at the rules only this once, since we know each other now. You are Murthy, I am Srinivasan. Is he dead or alive? You just tell me that much based on our relationship with each other…by now. And I will go away and you can do your work.

Murthy: Sir he is alive sir.

Srinivasan: Is he? You say it too casually, without checking. Do you know which patient I am talking about?

Murthy: Sir, I really cannot go on like this. I am sorry.

Srinivasan: The male nurse who was taking out the canula on my arm before discharge? He took the canula out just as this guy was brought in, and he forgot all about my canula. All the doctors and the nurses ran to crowd around this guy. And my arm bled because the male nurse had forgotten to put a bandage in the rush.

Murthy: Sir, why are you telling me all this?

Srinivasan: To help you understand why me and that accident person aren’t unrelated.

Murthy: Sir, I understand your concern. But. But, wait a minute…

There was a pause as Mr Murthy seemed to be thinking. Then it sounded like he was whispering something to someone else, cupping the phone with one palm.

And when Murthy spoke again, his voice was slightly different: Sir, Mr Srinivasan Pillai, did you by any chance have anything to do with the accident?

Srinivasan: Did I—? What are you saying. Why should I—

Murthy: Sir, it’s natural for us to suspect. All sorts of hit-and-run cases come to us. And your interest is unnatural sir.

Srinivasan: Unnatural? Isn’t this the most natural thing in the world?

Murthy: Sir, we have your name. We have your number from this call. We have your details in our records if you are speaking the truth about you being a patient here an hour ago.

Srinivasan: About two hours ago. Two-and-half, may be, by now.

Murthy: What I’m saying is, we might even have your home address here. Should I call the police and tell them a person very interested in a hit-and-run case called up? Could you be the murderer they’re looking for?

Srinivasan: So he’s dead. You told me he was alive?

Murthy: That information will not come from me.

There was a pause. Then the Caller cleared his throat and spoke.

Caller: At the time of the accident I was in your emergency department itself, scratching from behind my ears to the crack in my buttocks.

He heard the attendant Murthy telling someone in a low voice that he ought to transfer this call to the psychiatric department. Giggles followed, vaguely away.

Caller: You will be wasting the police’s time. I just want to know—

Attendant: Whether the man is dead or alive. I cannot tell you that. And now I need to get back to my work, sir.

Caller: Yes, yes, I understand. You talk about relation to patient. At the time he was wheeled in unconscious, not one of his relatives or friends were around him. They were still probably trying to figure out who he was, where he was from, and then get his relatives numbers to call and inform them. What a shock they must have when they’re told.

Attendant (sadly): True sir.

Caller: I can’t be given any information about him as I am not related to him. But in those moments no one around him was related to him. The doctors, the male and female nurses, a thousand beeping machines, the orderly rushing to get pillows…no one. They were all strangers, standing around him and trying to keep him alive.

Attendant: Yes sir.

Caller: I am one of those strangers. I gave some blood from my arm, although it was just spilt from where the canula had been. But I prayed for him.

Attendant: Sir, you seem to be a nice person. I am sorry about that talk about the police and all.

Caller: No problem.

Attendant: I am also sorry I cannot tell you anything about any patient. Those are the rules, whether we like them or not. They are necessary so that no one gets in the way of anyone. You could come over to the hospital and make enquiries, but even then they may not tell you anything.

There was another pause. It was obvious to the attendant Murthy that the caller Srinivasan was thinking about that last thing he had said. About coming over to the hospital.

Attendant: I would have told you sir, but I might lose my job. Strictly speaking there can even be legal action against me—

Caller: All of which are way below this question: Is a man dead or alive.

Attendant: I know sir, but that is not how it works.

Caller: I prayed for that man. I have never prayed for a stranger before. Then how can we be strangers anymore?

Murthy (tired voice): I know sir, but I really have to go now. There are other cases like the one you saw, coming in all the time. Hundreds of cases a week, sometimes. Please, sir, let me do my work. You are a good person. You can keep praying for the man you saw. But you can’t, you must not keep enquiring about him.

Srinivasan: But we are human. For us even prayers are pointless, whatever might be said, if their outcome will never be known to us.

Murthy: Yes sir. Now—

Srinivasan: Your idea is good. I will come there now. I will say my itching is back. I might learn something about our underwear guy from the doctor, Dr Vivek.

Murthy: His shift is over sir. They were all on the nightshift.

Srinivasan: It’s okay. I will find out something.

Murthy: But don’t tell them I told you to come or anything like that, sir. My job will go.

Srinivasan: No no. We will meet. I’m just starting from here.

Murthy: My shift is also over sir. Please take care. I will pray for you, sir.

The conversation was over. Murthy did not laugh at the caller anymore. But as he packed his bag to leave for the day, he told himself that though the conversation had been very odd, it wasn’t a one-off. He worked in the emergency department of such a large hospital, and strange calls did come in once in a while.

 

 

****